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Ivan Rodriguez to the Nationals, but why?

 

The Associated Press reported today that the Washington Nationals will sign Ivan Rodriguez to a two-year, $6 million contract. The deal is subject to Rodriguez, 38, passing a physical.

The 14-time All-Star has had an illustrious 19 year career which has seen him win an MVP (1999), reach two World Series, and win one with the Marlins in 2003. Rodriguez has a career .299 batting average, and has averaged 21 homers and 86 RBI in his 19 seasons. He will be remembered as arguably the best defensive catcher of all time, and has 13 Gold Gloves to back it up.

Rodriguez’s career is certainly something baseball fans around the world should celebrate, and we will in six or so years when he is surely to be inducted into baseballs Hall of Fame. However, in Washington, it may not be a time of celebration for everyone. Rodriguez’s career, while illustrious, should have been over years ago in the minds of many in baseball. Once the best hitting catcher in all of baseball, Rodriguez has struggled to bat even .250 in his last four stints.

Following his poor stretch run with the Yankees in 2008, Rodriguez found himself without a job going into the 2009 season. A strong World Baseball Classic proved as his launching pad however, as the backstop played his way into a one-year $1.5 million contract with Houston. It was supposed to be Pudge’s last hurrah, one more run for old time’s sake. In the last month and a half of the season, Rodriguez was even traded to the club where he spent most of his career, the Rangers. It seemed like a perfect ending for Rodriguez, to end it where he started it all.

Yet here we are. In one year’s time Rodriguez went from a last minute signing to being one of the first players picked up at the winter meetings. He doubled both his contract size and length, from a one-year $1.5 million deal, to a two-year deal that will give him $3 million a year. This incredible raise coming after a season when Rodriguez batted .251, got on base at .280, and slugged only .382, his worst stats since his rookie year.
So why would the Nationals drop this kind of money on a player who is clearly past the end of his road?

The rumor of late had been that the Nationals were on the market for a back up catcher who they would feel comfortable starting. A desire likely fueled by the recent elbow surgery that starting catcher, Jesus Flores, underwent on Nov. 17. Flores’ latest surgery came after the 25-year-old catcher suffered a stress fracture in May of last season, and eventually season-ending shoulder surgery in September due to a torn right labrum.

Rizzo’s ambition to acquire a catcher he felt was slightly better than an average back-up had many questioning the organizations confidence in their catcher’s health. The fact that they would pay Rodriguez $6 million, making him the clubs fifth highest paid player, has to make even the most naive fan wonder.

Flores has had a history of injuries and between promising stints, has had trouble staying on the field. Many felt the prospect catcher was finally taking it to the next step in 2009 as the backstop batted .301/.371/.505 in 29 games for the Nationals. Injuries, however, kept him off the field.

The Good News

090615_2627175ab040_w_series_gm_6Rodriguez has experience helping out young players in the past. In 2003 he joined a Marlins team that had finished fourth in the NL East the year before. Stacked with talented, but young, arms like Dontrelle Willis, A.J. Burnett, Josh Beckett, Carl Pavano, and Brad Penny, Rodriguez helped the club reach and win the 2003 World Series over the New York Yankees. Many credited the veteran backstop as not only being the heart of the young team, but also a wise teacher for a young pitching staff that bloomed under his watch.

Three years later he would return to the World Series after joining a Tigers team that had only won 71 games the year before. Rodriguez molded yet another young pitching staff, headed by Justin Verlander, Joel Zumaya, and Jeremy Bonderman. Kenny Rogers even found a resurgence with Pudge as his catcher.

It can be debated whether or not Rodriguez was actually the reason for the World Series runs or if he was just in the right place at the right time. Regardless, even if he will not have the impact on the Nationals pitching staff that he appears to have had on the Tigers and Marlins, he will almost certainly have an impact on Jesus Flores.

Flores, a young catcher with a good bat and a strong arm, no doubt will look up to Rodriguez. Regardless of what roles they fill in 2010, Flores can learn from Rodriguez, and can be given a day-in and day-out role model of the best there has been in the last 20 years.

The numbers may be confusing, but this could end up being a good deal for the Nationals.

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